Monday, May 2, 2005

Some Legacy

In the early 1950’s a major automobile manufacturer in the US decided to change the landscape of the American automotive scenery by developing a car that would be so radical in design and technology that it would forever be remembered as the car that changed the future. Under intense security measures to ensure secrecy and with a huge budget, the engineers, designers, and marketing staff worked to come up with a car that would leave the competition in the dust. The company did intense market research to find out what the consumer wanted in a car, and they were absolutely sure that what they had come up with would not only be hugely popular but would beat their competition into submission to the point that this car would dominate the road for the forseeable future.

Finally, in October 1957, after months of build-up and fanfare, including an hour-long television special, the new car was unveiled.

It was the Edsel.

1958 Edsel Bermuda (from

I was reminded of that story when I read this.

The day after he won a second term in November, President Bush offered his view of the new political landscape.

“When you win there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view,” he said, “and that’s what I intend to tell the Congress, that I made it clear what I intend to do as president . . . and the people made it clear what they wanted, now let’s work together.”

Six months ago, this comment was widely viewed as more than just a postgame boast. Among campaign strategists and academics, there was ample speculation that Bush’s victory, combined with incremental gains in the Republican congressional majority, signaled something fundamental: a partisan and ideological “realignment” that would reshape politics over the long haul.

As the president passed the 100-day mark of his second term over the weekend, the main question facing Bush and his party is whether they misread the November elections. With the president’s poll numbers down, and the Republican majority ensnared in ethical controversy, things look much less like a once-a-generation realignment.

Instead, some political analysts say it is just as likely that Washington is witnessing a happens-all-the-time phenomenon — the mistaken assumption by politicians that an election won on narrow grounds is a mandate for something broad. In Bush’s case, this includes restructuring Social Security and the tax code and installing a group of judges he was unable to seat in his first term. This was the error that nearly sank Bill Clinton’s presidency in his first years in office in 1993 and 1994 when he put forth a broad health care plan, and that caused then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republican “Revolution” to stall in 1995 in a confrontation over cutting spending for popular domestic programs.

Just as the Ford Motor Company grossly misjudged the public’s mood for a new car and radical new ideas, and no matter how you dressed it up and gave it fancy touches like a push-button transmission in the steering wheel hub, or acres of fake wood grain all over the sides, it was still just another car, and a rather ugly one at that. Not only that, the US economy was in a recession and no one wanted to pay more money for a car that didn’t really fit in anywhere — it was too expensive for the average car buyer, and too tacky for the rich. The only legacy that the Edsel left was that the name will forever be attached to a bad idea at the wrong time because the people who came up with it refused to listen to what the people really wanted — a good car that wouldn’t veer off the road into the tall grass on the right.